Nichiren Shonin (1222-1282)

by Ryuei Michael McCormick > Historic Buddha > Mahayana > Lotus Sutra > Blog

Part 1: Childhood and Early Studies

Nichiren Shonin is the founder of Nichiren Buddhism. He was born on February 16, 1222 in the fishing village of Kominato in the Japanese Province of Awa, which is Chiba Prefecture today. His father's name was Nukina Jiro Shigetada, and he may have been a minor functionary working for the nearby manor house. His mother's name was Umegiku. Little is known of his parents, though Nichiren Shonin later claimed that he was the son of a humble fisherman. Nichiren Shonin's childhood name was Zen-nichi-maro.

At the age of 11, Nichiren Shonin's bright and questioning mind attracted the attention of the lady of the local manor for whom his father worked. Her patronage enabled him to enter the local Seichoji Temple (also called Kiyosumidera), where he could receive an education and begin his quest for his many questions about life. There, he was given the name Yaku-o-maro. Upon entering the temple, Nichiren Shonin prayed to Akashagarbha Bodhisattva (Kokuzo Bosatsu) to become the wisest person in Japan so that he could discover the true intention of Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings. Specifically, he wanted to know why the people who put their faith in Nembutsu were still suffering and even undergoing terrible and painful deaths; he wanted to know why the emperor had been defeated by the shogunate in 1221 even though the god Hachiman had vowed to support the imperial family until the 100th emperor; and he wanted to know which sect upheld the true teaching of the Buddha.

At the age of 15 Nichiren Shonin was ordained as a priest. His master was Dozen-bo, to whom he would always feel a debt of gratitude. He was given the name Zesho-bo Rencho at this time. The following year he journeyed to Kamakura, the capital city of the shogunate, to continue his studies there until age 20.

For many years, Nichiren Shonin traveled all over Japan, visiting all the great temples and monasteries of his day in order to further his training. In these places, Nichiren Shonin acquired a first hand experience of all the forms of Buddhism practiced in Japan, including Shingon esotericism, Zen meditation, Pure Land piety, and the strict discipline of the Vinaya or monastic precepts. More importantly, he studied the sutras in order to see for himself what Shakyamuni Buddha actually taught. He was also able to study at Enryakuji Temple at Mt. Hiei, the head temple of the Tendai school, from age 20 until 31. After many years of study, Nichiren Shonin found that the Lotus Sutra was the culmination of Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings wherein the ultimate truth of Buddhism is clearly expounded.

Part 2: Establishment of Nichiren Buddhism

At the age of 31, Nichiren Shonin returned to Seichoji Temple. On the morning of April 28, 1253, he faced the rising sun at the top of Mt. Kiyosumi and chanted Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, thus initiating his mission to spread the Wonderful Dharma. He also gave himself the name he is known by today - Nichiren. The name means "Sun Lotus," and refers to the light of the sun which dispels darkenss and the purity of the lotus flower which blooms in swamps, untouched by the dirty water around it. Both images figure prominently in the Lotus Sutra - these were the qualities that Nichiren Shonin wished to embody. "Shonin" is a title of respect which means "Revered Priest."

At noon on that day, Nichiren Shonin gave his first sermon to commemorate the completion of his studies to his old master and fellow monks. In that sermon he shocked his audience by criticizing the popular form of Buddhism known as Pure Land. The Pure Land movement taught that buddhahood could only be attained after death in a heavenly pure land by chanting the name of the Buddha of Infinite Light. In place of this practice, Nichiren Shonin taught the practice of chanting the "Great Title" (Odaimoku) of the Lotus Sutra, which is Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. He taught the Odaimoku as a practical and accessible way in which all people can realize the deepest truths of Buddhism. Just as the name of a country can bring to mind all the characteristics of that country, the title of the Lotus Sutra embodies all the merits and virtues of the Buddha expounded in the sutra. Nichiren Shonin taught that by chanting the Odaimoku, we can directly receive the ultiamte truth of the Lotus Sutra from the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha and attain buddhahood within our lifetime. This occasion of Nichiren Shonin's first sermon is commemorated every April 28th as the Establishment of the Nichiren Order.

Nichiren Shonin's first sermon immediately made enemies for him. The local steward, Tojo Kagenobu, was a fervent practitioner of Pure Land Buddhism. He considered Nichiren Shonin's sermon blasphemous and sought to arrest him. His life in danger, Nichiren Shonin fled to Kamakura. There he took up residence in a hut located in a district of the city called Matsubagayatsu. From there, he preached on streetcorners to the ordinary people: the peasants, merchants, craftsmen, fishermen, and lower to middle ranking samurai. On the streets of Kamakura, Nichiren Shonin first became recognized as a great teacher and reformer, dedicated to relieving the suffering of the common people. He offered them the essence of the highest teachings of Buddhism in the form of the simple yet profound practice of the Odaimoku so that they could attain buddhahood. He also pointed out the errors of the elitist and decadent schools and movements which were distorting the true spirit of the Buddha Dharma.

Part 3: Rissho Ankoku Ron

From 1257 to 1259 many natural disasters struck Japan, including earthquakes, typhoons, famine, and plague. In response to such heart-rending suffering, Nichiren Shonin wrote one of his most important works, the Rissho Ankoku-ron (Treatise on Spreading Peace Throughout the Country by Establishing the True Dharma). On July 16, 1260, Nichiren Shonin presented the Rissho Ankoku-ron to Hojo Tokiyori, the retired regent who was the actual ruler of the Kamakuran Shogunate. In this work, Nichiren Shonin argued that the government should stop sponsoring the Pure Land teachings and instead support those which upheld faith in the Lotus Sutra. If it did not, Nichiren Shonin warned, Japan would be faced with further disasters, but would especially be in danger from civil war and foreign invasion. However, if Japan turned to the Lotus Sutra, then peace and prosperity would be established.

There are many things that must be kept in mind about these stern admonitions to the government. The first is that the conditions of one's life are reflections of one's inner life, and this is just as true for a nation as it is for an individual. This is why Nichiren Shonin insisted upon a positive faith in the ability of ordinary people to attain buddhahood and transform this world into a pure land as taught by the Lotus Sutra, rather than to have a fatalistic attitude towards this life and to only look forward to a happy life after death as taught by the Pure Land movement. The second is that Nichiren Shonin's admonition to the governement in the form of a treatise demanding the sponsorship of the true teaching as opposed to deviant teachings was part of a long tradition in East Asia that had roots all the way back to the attempts of Confucius to reform the government of his day. Nichiren Shonin was by no means the first or the only one to have done this. The third is that Nichiren Shonin was not advocating the persecution of other schools of Buddhism or the establishment of a state religion. Rather, he was calling for the shogunate to cease sponsoring harmful interpretations of Buddhism and instead sponsor the teaching which was actually in accord with what Shakyamuni Buddha taught in the sutras. In any case, all religious institutions in Japan at that time could only operate with the approval and/or the patronage of the government. Finally, the Rissho Ankoku-ron was not a nationalistic document arguing for the superiority of Japan, but was instead a critique of the shogunate's management of religious affairs. It was a document aimed at spiritual reform for the sake of the Japanese people so that they could overcome their suffering and ultimately have something of true value to share with the rest of the world - the true teaching and practice of the Lotus Sutra.

Part 4: The Four Major Persecutions

Nichiren Shonin's efforts to promote reform were not only ignored, but they aroused the resentment of the Buddhist establishment as well as those in the shogunate who did not appreciate his criticisms of their rule. On the night of August 27, 1260, an angry mob burned down Nichiren Shonin's hut. Fortunately, he had been alerted to the threat and escaped into the hills. For several months, he stayed with supporters outside the city of Kamakura where he continued to teach the Lotus Sutra. This occasion is commemorated on August 27 as the Persecution at Matsubagayatsu, the first of the four great persecutions which would befall Nichiren Shonin.

Shortly after returning to his restored residence in Kamakura, Nichiren Shonin was arrested by the shogunate. On May 12, 1261, he was sent into exile on a small rocky peninsula in Izu Province. His enemies hoped that he would die of exposure to the elements. Nichiren Shonin survived with the assistance of a local fisherman and his wife. Later, the local steward also befriended him after overcoming a serious illness with the help of Nichiren Shonin's prayers. The steward not only provided for Nichiren Shonin, but he also bestowed upon him a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha that Nichiren Shonin kept with him until his death. Far from feeling defeated, Nichiren Shonin felt that being exiled had enabled him to live the Lotus Sutra with his whole being 24 hours a day. While others only read the sutra, Nichiren Shonin was able to live in accord with its teachings, even at the risk of his life. Nichiren Shonin also spent his exile reflecting upon his mission. At that time, he realized that anyone who teaches the Dharma must discern the differences in the teachings, the capacity of the practitioners, the nature of the times, the characteristics of the country, and the proper sequence of the teaching. Nichiren Shonin taught these five standards for propagation so that his disciples would know how to teach the Dharma effectively. This second persecution is commemorated on May 12 as the Izu Exile.

On February 22, 1263, Nichiren Shonin was finally pardoned and allowed to return to Kamakaura. He resumed his propagation of the Lotus Sutra. Hearing that his mother had become ill and was close to death (his father had already passed away), Nichiren Shonin decided to take the risk of returning home to Awa Province, where the local steward, Tojo Kagenobu, was still a deadly enemy. Nichiren Shonin returned in August of 1264, and through his prayers he enabled his mother to recover; she lived for four more years. Afterwards, Nichiren Shonin and his disciples were invited to the home of Kudo Yoshitaka, the Lord of Amatsu. On the way, they were ambushed by Tojo Kagenobu and his men in a place called Komatsubara, or the Pine Forest, on November 11, 1264. Hearing of the ambush, Kudo Yoshitaka rushed to the rescue with his own forces. In the ensuing battle, both Kudo Yoshitaka and Tojo Kagenobu recieved mortal wounds. Kyonin-bo, one of Nichiren Shonin's disciples, was also killed, and two others were seriously wounded. Nichiren Shonin himself barely escaped with his life, having received a blow to the head. This third persecution is commemorated on November 11 as the Komatsubara Persecution.

Nichiren Shonin remained in the countryside propagating and teaching the Lotus Sutra for the next several years. He returned to Kamakura in 1268, after Mongol envoys from Korea arrived in Japan demanding tribute from the Japanese. The Mongols threatened to invade Japan if they were not given satisfaction. The shogunate refused to negotiate with the Mongols, who has already successfully invaded China and Korea. It seemed as though invasion were imminent, and, for the second time, Nichiren tried again to convince the government to change its ways. He reminded the religious and political establishment that this was exactly what he had predicted eight years before in his Rissho Ankoku-ron. The shogunate was not about to reform, however.

On September 12, 1271, Nichiren Shonin was arrested as part of the shogunate's effort to quell dissidents and present a united front against the Mongol threat. At midnight, War Minister Nagasaki Yoritsuna had Nichiren Shonin taken to the execution grounds on Tatsunokuchi beach. Nichiren Shonin was saved from death when the executioner and the other samurai were frightened by a mysterious ball of light which flew through the sky. A messenger from the regent arrived soon after with orders that Nichiren Shonin was not to be executed in any case but exiled to Sado Island. This fourth persecution is commemorated on September 12 as the Tatsunokuchi Persecution.

Part 5: Sado Island

On October 10, 1271, Nichiren Shonin was finally sent into exile on Sado Island. At first, he lived in a small broken down shrine in a graveyard called Tsukuhara. Once again, his enemies hoped that Nichiren Shonin would die in the harsh winter of Sado Island without any adequate shelter or provisions. However, Nichiren Shonin's strong determination and faith allowed him to endure these extreme conditions and to befriend the local peasants and samurai who then provided for his needs. This exile is commemorated on October 10 as the Sado Exile.

Not only did Nichiren Shonin survive, he also wrote two of his major works during the Sado Exile. The first was the Kaimoku-sho (Open Your Eyes [to the Lotus Sutra]) written in February 1272. In that work, Nichiren Shonin wrote to open the eyes of all people to the fact that now was the time to practice the true teaching of the Lotus Sutra.

The Kaimoku-sho also reveals his understanding that he was doing the work of Superior Practice Bodhisattva as the "Votary of the Lotus Sutra." In the Lotus Sutra, Superior Practice Bodhisattva is the leader of the bodhisattvas who emerge from beneath the earth, the original disciples of the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha. It is Superior Practice Bodhisattva and the other bodhisattvas from beneath the earth who are commissioned by the Eternal Buddha to spread the Lotus Sutra in the Latter Age of the Dharma when the true spirit of the Buddha's teachings will have been lost. From this point on, Nichiren Shonin was no longer trying to merely reform the Buddhism of the historical Buddha; rather, he was presenting the Wonderful Dharma of the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha, intended for this age in the form of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.

In 1272, Nichiren Shonin was moved into a more comfortable residence on Sado. Safe from the elements and from starvation Nichiren Shonin wrote his most important treatise, the Kanjin Honzon-sho (Spiritual Contemplation and the Object of Worship), which he completed on April 25, 1273. In this work, Nichiren Shonin described the transmission of the Wonderful Dharma to all sentient beings by the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha during the Ceremony in the Air. The Eternal Buddha bestowing the Wonderful Dharma to all beings would become the "Focus of Devotion" (in Japanese, Gohonzon) for Nichiren Shonin's disciples. Unlike previous Buddhist forms of contemplation, which depended upon one's own ability to perceive the true nature of reality, Nichiren Shonin taught that the true nature of reality makes itself known to us as the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha in the form of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. In other words, buddhahood is not something that we cultivate through our own self-conscious efforts. Rather, the true nature of reality is conveyed to us by the spiritual presence of the Eternal Buddha within our lives, which we awaken to through our faith in Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. All of this unfolds naturally when we focus our whole being upon the Gohonzon and chant Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. On July 8, 1273, Nichiren Shonin inscribed the Omandala, or Great Mandala, in order to calligraphically depict the Gohonzon using Chinese and Sanskrit characters.

Part 6: Mount Minobu

In March 1274, Nichiren Shonin was pardoned and allowed to return to Kamakura. Once there, the government sought to co-opt him and his movement by offering him a temple in return for his prayers against the Mongol threat. Nichiren Shonin refused to compromise and again insisted that the government first withdraw its patronage of those teachings which were obscuring the true teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. Seeing that his third attempt at admonishing the government was again falling on deaf ears (the first time was the presentation of the Rissho Ankoku-ron in 1260, the second time was after the appearance of the Mongol envoys in 1268), Nichiren Shonin decided to follow the Confucian teaching that one should retire into the mountains and forests if one has tried three times without success to admonish the government. In May 1274, Nichiren Shonin left Kamakura and set up his hermitage on Mount Minobu.

At Minobu, Nichiren Shonin concentrated on training his disciples and sending letters of encouragement to his other followers around the country. From there, Nichiren Shonin heard about the two failed attempts of the Mongols to invade Japan in October 1274 and later in June 1281. Though Japan was saved by fierce storms which destroyed the Mongol fleets on both occasions, Nichiren Shonin warned that a clear victory had not been won. Moreover, the spiritual conditions which made Japan vulnerable were still present and would inevitably lead to suffering for the Japanese people. His prediction finally came true in 1333 when the Kamakuran Shogunate fell and Japan was plunged into centuries of warfare and strife. Ironically, the shogunate fell in part because it had bankrupted itself by subsidizing expensive esoteric Buddhist rituals for the security of the country, and was therefore unable to pay the samurai forces which had actually fought against the Mongols.

Nichiren Shonin also had to endure the persecution of his followers, for whom he cared deeply. Many of his followers had come into conflict with family members or their clan lords. The worst persecution was the Atsuwara Persecution of 1279 when twenty farmers were arrested by War Minister Nagasaki Yoritsuna and three were beheaded because they refused to give up their faith in the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren Shonin constantly prayed for the welfare of his followers and sent many letters of encouragement during this time.

In addition to his many letters, Nichiren Shonin also wrote the last two of his five major writings while at Mount Minobu. In June 1275, he wrote the Senji-sho (Selection of the Right Time). In the Senji-sho, he reiterated the five standards of propagation (or methods of preaching): the sutra to be preached, the capacity of the people to understand the sutra, the time of preaching, the place of preaching, and the person who preaches. In particular, this writing emphasized that the time had arrived for upholding the Lotus Sutra above all other teachings and that liberation could be attained simply through the practice of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.

Nichiren wrote the Ho-on-jo (Recompense of Indebtedness) in July 1276, after the death of Dozen-bo, the teacher who had ordained and tutored him as a boy. In that writing, Nichiren Shonin emphasized that Buddhist practice should be motivated by the aspiration to liberate all those to whom one has a debt of gratitude, and that the best way to do this is to spread Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. He also dedicated the merit he had accumulated by spreading the Lotus Sutra to his late master. In the Ho-on-jo, he also first described the Three Great Secret Dharmas: the Gohonzon, the Odaimoku, and the Kaidan.

The many persections and hardships that Nichiren Shonin had endured over the years had taken their toll. On September 8, 1282, he was forced to leave Mount Minobu for the sake of his failing health. His disciples hoped to take him to the hot springs in Hitachi, but he was forced to stop at the home of his devoted follower Ikegami Munenaka. On October 8, Nichiren Shonin assigned six senior disciples and commissioned them to carry on his teachings after his death. On October 13, 1282, at the age of 60, Nichiren Shonin passed away surrounded by his disciples and lay-followers.

After his passing, Nichiren Buddhism continued to grow. Over time, it has become one of the largest schools of Buddhism in Japan. Today, his dedicated followers can be found all over the world chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo.

This is an expanded version of that which appears in Lotus Seeds: The Essence of Nichiren Shu Buddhism, published by the San Jose Sangha of Nichiren Shu. Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick, 2000.

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